Cropping the bluebells
- A Century of the Scottish People: 1830-1950 by T.C. Smout
Collins, 318 pp, £15.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 00 217524 X
- Living in Atholl: A Social History of the Estates 1685-1785 by Leah Leneman
Edinburgh, 244 pp, £15.00, April 1986, ISBN 0 85224 507 6
Professor Smout has had the difficult task of providing a sequel to a book which now looks like a landmark in Scottish historiography. Published in 1969, his History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 combined economic, social and cultural history to provide a new overview of Scotland in transition which dissolved mythologies and liberated imagination. Its effects have been seen in many valuable monographs published since. As the Scottish landscape was once transformed by lairdly improvers, so Smout and his followers have created fertile fields where there were once intellectual bogs. Thus, while Dr Leneman’s Living in Atholl is not going to shake post-Smout conceptions – it is essentially a conscientious sifting of the Atholl Muniments in Blair Castle and shows signs of necessary deference towards the ducal line whose latest representative honours it with a foreword – it contributes new tinctures and shadows to our picture of 18th-century Scotland. The Atholl estates straddled Highlands and Lowlands. Dr Leneman, who makes enterprising use of Gaelic verse, quotes in translation a poem of 1781 which salutes the Duke’s lovely province:
You lie in the middle of Scotland,
Your air is pure, your water is fast flowing ...
Your straths are pleasant and productive,
Clad with grass and corn ...
Your people live in tranquillity and sufficiency ...
As she points out, this helps to confirm the judgment of an English traveller six decades earlier (Captain Burt): that Atholl and its people were exceptional in the general ‘gloomy’ Highland vista.
Though the gentry – including some of the ducal family – were Jacobite in Fifteen and Forty-Five, ordinary countrymen showed little enthusiasm for that cause and had to be bullied to fight for Prince Charlie. A recruiter complained that the men of Dunkeld were ‘quite degenerat from their Ancestors, and not one spark of Loyalty among them’. But Atholl Highlanders, who had eagerly welcomed the Hanoverian Campbells, supposedly their traditional foes, were rewarded by brutal oppression from Cumberland’s soldiers, acting on their general’s belief that all Gaels were Jacobites. Dr Leneman’s lengthy quotations from documents point to a complex situation, contradicting mythological simplifications, yet showing where the roots of such may be found.
Likewise, she confirms, so far as this area goes, the traditional view that lower-class Scots showed an unusual thirst for learning – as when the people of remote Glen Tilt petitioned the 3rd Duke in 1769 for a school convenient for their ‘bairns’, who would otherwise ‘be lost for want of education’ – but undermines the myth that Scottish education was egalitarian. Free and cheap instruction was deliberately limited in scope: ‘for the majority, all that was considered necessary was to be able to read English in order to understand the Scriptures,’ and there was little chance to go further, since charity schoolmasters were ‘expressly forbidden’ to teach Latin. On the other hand, the assumption that coalminers in Scotland, as serfs, must necessarily have been downtrodden, is called into question by evidence from the Dukes’ Lowland mine at Blairingone in Clackmannan, where colliers in 1740 earned wages eight or nine times as high as the average for agricultural workers. Dr Leneman’s study insinuates pretty effectively the view that the Atholl estates were successfully managed in a spirit of ‘enlightened paternalism’. Perhaps the jocundly pastoral, fresh-faced musicians and dancers in David Allan’s famous painting of a ‘Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl’, which is reproduced as her dust-jacket, are less idealised than one has supposed.
Whatever good there was in 18th-century ways of life in Scotland – and notwithstanding the brief Jacobite irruptions, it was on the whole a more peaceful land than England, and increasingly dedicated to Improvement – industrialisation wrought transformation. Smout covered the early stages of the process in his History of the Scottish People. Despite his realism about conditions in the new industries and the sad fate of the handloom weavers, despite his regret at the eclipse of Enlightened rational optimism as Evangelicalism secured a blighting grip on the blackening cities, and despite his conclusion that the tendency for decades before 1830 had been for the culture to become ‘more British and less specifically Scottish’, that book ended with a sense of upbeat. Smout had explored and attempted to explain an astonishing afflatus of intellectual discovery, creative talent and entrepreneurial drive – a ‘cultural golden age’ in one small country which had had, and went on having, world-wide consequences.
Vol. 9 No. 4 · 19 February 1987
SIR: Angus Calder (LRB, 22 January), in accepting T.C. Smout’s view of the Highland Clearances after 1830, joins the growing group who make light of the genocide committed in the Highlands and Islands by falling over backwards to debunk the various ‘myths’ and myths that have wound themselves round that event. I have not yet been able to read Smout’s new book, but for years I have chafed under the seemingly reasonable and judicious half-truths which he propagated in his account of the Clearances before 1830 in A History of the Scottish People. ‘The misery of the Hebrides is primarily the misery of the congested, not of the dispossessed.’ Are you not dispossessed if your rent is trebled and you have to bind yourself to an export agent who then sells you at a North American port? Twenty thousand Highlanders passed through this system in the 1760s and 1770s. Or if you are kidnapped by slave-traders and taken off to America for sale? Seven slave-ships were cruising off the Inner and Outer Hebrides for this purpose in 1774. Or if you are rounded up by police, bailiffs and press-gangs, truncheoned and handcuffed, dropped into ships and landed starving on the coast of Canada some months later? This was done on Barra and South Uist early in the 1850s: every crofter on Barra was evicted, 800 people were driven off that island, 1600 from South Uist. Roofs were burned, people clubbed and hounded down with horses. The lairds got rid of every family they could from Benbecula, North Uist, Tiree, Mull, western Harris, Raasay, many parts of Skye.
To say, as Smout does, that in any case the Highlands ‘had never been … a peasant Arcadia of rosy prosperity, plump girls and happy bakers’ is the merest distraction and a debating trick. You might as well soften your view of Stalin’s farm collectivisation by saying that the Donbas was congested and anyway the Cossacks had not been living in a Paradise of plump milkmaids and happy horse-dealers. To add insult to half-truth, Smout quotes various mandarin witnesses from England and the Lowlands (Pennant, John Sinclair) to suggest that the Highlanders were ‘torpid with idleness’ and preferred ‘temporary bondage in a strange land to starving for life in their native soil’. Of course much emigration was voluntary (if it is a choice to be given no grace to find the rent-money in a famine year because your landlord needs all the cash he can get to send his sons to Eton and buy a mansion in Edinburgh or Surrey). But to think you have said the last word about the sufferers by calling them ‘torpid wretches’ is only possible if you have never heard, or read, the work-songs and love-songs, the celebrations of fishing and rowing, the bitter laments for ill-usage or the playful comedies which the ‘torpid wretches’ made up and passed on, or if you have somehow managed to overlook the pitched battles that were fought with stones and kelping hooks by the women and men against their evictors on North Uist, Harris, Skye.
All this can be found in recent printed books (by John Prebble, W.H. Murray and James Hunter) and by going to the islands and talking to the great-grandchildren of those who did the fighting and the singing, and who still know their names, and where they were on a particular day in 1849, and exactly how the lairds’ agents and the police inflicted the injuries, arrests, intimidations and frauds. In the face of this record, it is unhistorical to say, as Angus Calder does, that ‘pressure on the land … rather than cruel landlordism per se’ was what depopulated the Highlands. Both were decisive. That ‘rather than’ is a verbal sleight which makes the cruelty begin to blur and vanish. Go to Harris and use your eyes. The western meadows from which so many families were cleared by force are beautifully drained grasslands on a basis of white shell-sand, fertile and easy to work. Almost nobody lives there. On the eastern side the land is desperately hard to work, ridges of bare rock with wet, peaty soil in between. There, for six generations, families have perched, eking out a living with subsidies and the sale of knitwear. When they then leave for the Lowlands, Canada or Australia, it is of course not ‘dispossession’ but ‘choice’. The actual cruelty happened long ago – so long ago that Angus Calder can comfort himself with the thought that the Highlanders who flocked abroad ‘commonly did well’. Again the judicious half-truth. Those who survived may have done all right in the end. But not the shrunken women with children on their backs who lived in caves, on shellfish, after eviction, or begged for bread in Ontario, or died of disease and exposure on the wharfs. These are facts, not myths.
Vol. 9 No. 5 · 5 March 1987
SIR: I respect the feelings which animate David Craig’s objections (Letters, 19 February) to the countenance I give to T.C. Smout’s view of the Highland Clearances in his Century of the Scottish People. I have many friends, Gaels and Lowlanders, who share his outrage, and so do I, when I contemplate certain aspects and incidents of the process. In John Clare’s Northamptonshire the transformation of the countryside brought great misery to communities and individuals, but in Gaelic Scotland this was compounded by severe threat to a wholly distinctive culture. If the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were not barbarians, they were certainly colonisers. When Sorley Maclean and other fine Gaelic poets of our day refer to the Clearances as an unforgivable wrong, they speak, so far as I am concerned, truth. I would not have time for any work of art which attempted to soften the picture.
But historians have a different job. They have to consider world-wide tendencies and draw comparisons. They have also to take note of differences within cultures, where all groups do not behave in the same way. I think Dr Craig should look again at Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution and Age of Capital. He could also turn to Eric Richards’s History of the Highland Clearances (1982), the work of an Australian who is bound to see them in wide geographical perspective. ‘The changes experienced in the Scottish Highland were in no sense unique,’ Richards writes. ‘The modern world economy is full of parallels.’ He finds such parallels in the Philippines and in Mexico. He also notes the irony that ‘some of the colonising sheep farmers in Australia were émigré Scottish Highlanders set adrift by the Clearances,’ who dispossessed Aborigines in turn. Jack Bumsted, a Canadian, showed in his The People’s Clearances that around 1800 there were Highlanders who wanted to emigrate and landlords anxious to prevent them.
The more extreme versions of the Clearances story imply that they were uniquely horrible and that no true Gael would have left of his own accord. I don’t think this distortion helps the present-day Highlands at all. The Gaelic language is now threatened with extinction by modernisation, Americanisation and, of course, Anglicisation. Action to sustain the tongue in which Sorley Maclean has written the magnificent verse which Seamus Heaney recently celebrated in the London Review is more to the point than rehearsing old horrors. As Convener of the Scottish Poetry Library, I do what I can to help.
Vol. 9 No. 6 · 19 March 1987
SIR: I am not sure how old a horror has to be, in Angus Calder’s view (Letters, 5 March), before it is no longer worth rehearsing. Should we stop talking about the Holocaust in, say, 2050, the Soviet farm collectivisation in 2000, and the Somme any time now? But if the rehearsing is being done at all – as it is, after all, by Smout, Richards, and the other historians whom he favours – then it should be done in terms that do justice to the cruel upheavals that took place. These were not less because they also happened in the Philippines and Mexico, or for that matter Cuba and Ceylon. I used to cite this parallel when I gave talks, in Sri Lanka, to highland Ceylonese workers whose forebears had been cleared from their farmlands and cut off from their wells – then sentenced to fifty lashes and a year in prison when they barked and uprooted the coffee trees planted by the British colonists or smashed the boundary fences round the new estates.
That all this was ‘in no sense unique’ but world-wide – the eviction of the peasantry to make way for capitalist farming – has been familiar history to me for thirty years, the subject of some of my poems, and has made the Scottish experience seem no less brutal. That some Highlanders then evicted some original Australians adds to the tragedy, not lessens it.
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return,
as we also see when Israeli Jews strafe the camps of evicted Palestinians or Catholics blow up the descendants of Protestants planted on Irish land three hundred years ago.
I do not know if the present events in Ulster or the Middle East can be reduced to what Angus Calder classes, diminishingly, as ‘certain aspects and incidents of the process’. Whole islands were cleared in the Hebrides, and the 800 people cleared from the Barra Isles or the 1600 from South Uist cannot have ‘wanted to emigrate’ or they would not have had to be clubbed, fettered and pursued at the instigation of the landlord, John Gordon, and by a minister, Henry Beatson.
By all means let us ‘consider such events as world-wide tendencies and draw comparisons’. When I do, I am impressed by many hideous likenesses: e.g. the use of whips and chains by early Kandyan planters – to hold down the Tamils they had imported to replace the evicted Sinhalese. This ‘old horror’ has to be ‘rehearsed’ if we are to understand the extreme methods of the present Tamil freedom-fighters. A bland, Smout-like view of the landlords’ methods of ‘dispossession’ in Ceylon would be as serious a faltering of the historian’s function as it is in the case of the Scottish Highlands.
Vol. 9 No. 8 · 23 April 1987
SIR: Why does David Craig imply (Letters, 19 March) that I am the kind of person who might condone the Holocaust because I have accepted some of the findings of a notably imaginative and compassionate economic historian about the Highland Clearances?
Statistics of population do not support the widespread impression that the Highland counties lost people, in the period of the Clearances, faster than Lowland agricultural shires. They certainly lost far fewer, proportionately, than famine-stricken Ireland. Any reasonable account of emigration from the Highlands has to take account of a pressure of population which might have produced, but mercifully did not, a cataclysm like Ireland’s, as well as of self-interested and sometimes very cruel ‘clearance’ by landlords for sheep-farming or sporting purposes. It also has to allow for the undoubted fact that from the mid-18th century many Highlanders went overseas voluntarily. One motive was the opportunity to recreate, on the frontier, a way of life that was becoming impossible in Scotland. An upshot both piquant and poignant is that Gaelic, in the Canadian Maritimes, where it has been spoken for two centuries by whole communities, now faces a danger of slow extinction at the same time as Gaelic in Scotland and for similar reasons.
Prince Charlie’s saviour Flora Macdonald settled with husband and clansmen in North Carolina, which Highlanders had been colonising since the 1730s. These people fought for Hanoverian George III against the American ‘patriot’ revolutionaries. The fact represents the difficulty of moralising about history as Dr Craig wishes to do. At what point in the scale of viciousness one places the Clearances among the many assaults made by capitalism and imperialism on peasant ways of life is open to debate. Dr Craig implies that they were as sudden, comprehensive and ruthless as, say, British occupation of the White Highlands of Kenya. My own view is that they weren’t, though their aspect of cultural genocide makes them even more repulsive than the changes in the Southern English countryside which produced the miseries of the era of Captain Swing and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Vol. 9 No. 14 · 23 July 1987
SIR: Following the correspondence about the Highland Clearances in these columns in February and March, I am writing a book for Seeker and Warburg about the personal experience of the Clearances and the family memories of them that have passed down to this day in the Highlands and Islands. I would be grateful if anyone with relevant material, oral or written, could get in touch with me, including the correspondent from the Highland Study Centre in Canada who wrote me in the early spring.
Hill House, Main Street,